10 July 2008

It's All in Your Head

I was reading an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called How Lies Live in Your Head and it reminded me of one of my favourite demos to do with my students. This exercise comes from Marilee Sprenger's book How to Teach So Students Remember.
  • Tell the group that you are going to say a list of terms. They should just listen to the words, not write them down.
  • Slowly read the following list: nap, dream, bed, moon, rest, night, snooze, blanket, slumber, drowsy, lie down, pillow, snore, evening, quiet.
  • After the list has been read, chat with the group for a moment about memory. (Perhaps some will have played "hidden objects" games before.) The goal is to have most of the list you read moved out of working memory.
  • Tell the group that you are now going to "test" them on how well they remember the terms. Ask them to raise their hands if they remember you saying the word dream. What about sleep? Most, if not all, will raise their hands for both. Remind the group that you did not say the word sleep. Why does your brain think it heard the word?
Fortunately or unfortunately, it is surprisingly simple to plant false memories into our brains. The example above deals with associations. The piece in the Times is focused more on presidential campaign "lies" and why both candidates and voters come to believe certain things.
The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true...

Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

One quote that I keep in my workspace at all times is the Thomas Cardinal Wolsey admonition to "Be very very careful what you put into that head, because you will never ever get it back out." This statement was made ~500 years ago, which gives a certain amount of credence to the idea that things happening in Henry VIII's court were likely not all that much less political than our own climate. In the classroom, I am amazed at the number and variety of misconceptions students hold about various science concepts...and the resistance to let those go. Maybe for teachers, it isn't as much about replacing "bad" memories as it is about infusing "good" ones. Can we do more to exploit the brain's abilities to help our students?

1 comment:

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Very deep question, SG.

My Dad, a classical scholar, warned me against becoming a clinical psychologist (oh yeah, I was headed that way) because of Wolsey's admonition. I was skeptical, but as life went on, I became a believer. I did not want to absorb a little bit of craziness from every patient I might treat.

Currently I'm an advocate of classical memory training (of late dressed up with new jargon in a new book from ASCD), and mind mapping. Both skills derive from the associative power of the brain, which is exemplified in physiology by intertwined neurons that pass code back and forth chemically and electrically.

Critics whine that "facts" are unimportant, and that "concepts" are where it's at, but I say, without facts to fall back on, concepts are empty.

Let's give the kids a handbook to operating their brains. The power is unimaginable.

BTW, lest you think I'm raving, this is the basis of my assertion that all kids (almost all, anyway) are geniuses.